Auditory Immanence and Affective Intensity

July 12, 2011

1. Affective Immanence and the Listening Subject

Affect and immanence are frequently confused (in a productive rather than a negative sense) towards a kind of sonorous, vital affirmation. This productive confusion is frequently expressed as testament to sound’s enveloping and visceral corporeality, which is then normally immediately contrasted to the critical distance and linearity of vision. As an example we can take Douglas Kahn’s description of auditory experience:

Terrestrially, sound is not only experienced as occurring in between but as surrounding the listener, and the source of the sound is itself surrounded by its own sound. This mutual envelopment of aurality predisposes an exchange among presences [...] Moreover, sounds can be heard coming from outside and behind the range of peripheral vision, and a sound of adequate intensity can be felt on and within the body as a whole, thereby dislocating the frontal and conceptual associations of vision with an all-around corporeality and spatiality (Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat, 27).

From this I’d like to draw only what are common statements regarding auditory experience, namely it’s `all-round corporeality and spatiality’. It’s worth pointing out at this point what is another common trope in the discussion of auditory experience—as Kahn gives a particularly clear example—namely the aforementioned contrast between the enveloping nature of sound and the frontal linearity of vision. This contrast is normally made by scholars within the diverse field of sound studies wishing to affirm and champion particular qualities, as well as the social and political significance, of the sonorous which are considered to have been historically undervalued. This comparison only serves this purpose, however, insofar as it remains imbalanced, comparing the medium of sound with the sense of sight; this imbalance allowing for an affirmation of sound’s affective, corporeal affirmation against sight’s somehow immaterial and transparent criticality. As I’ve said before—and as Jonathan Sterne has pointed out in detail through his criticisms of the `audiovisual litany’—this argument falls flat where the comparison is balanced and sound is compared to the equally enveloping and sensual medium of light, and sight is compared to an equally critical capacity for listening—or what Sterne refers to as audile technique. Kahn also addresses another binary distinction contributing to the `audiovisual litany’ or the ideology of immanence, namely the conceptual nature of vision and the sensual corporeality or `affectivity’ of audition. It is the latter part of what is largely an indefensible binarism—as much has been written on the sensuality of the vision and affective sight, Hannah Higgins and Mark Hansen spring to mind—that contributes to the confusion of affect and immanence towards a vitally affirmative conceptualisation of auditory experience; the sensuality of sound is, in this schema or tradition of thinking sonority, thought inseparable from its enveloping immanence—the specificity of which is (poorly) affirmed in contrast to the conceptual remove of vision. Yet, I would argue, the vitalistic nature of this confusion—linking affect and immanence—fails to adequately think either terms, but particularly immanence, reducing the latter to a particularly conservative notion.

The vitalistic conception of sonic and sensual immanence is thought in order to affirm the corporeality of auditory experience, the affective affirmation of somatic consistency lending to the constitution and unification of the embodied listening subject, to thinking the listening subject as one. Yet this affective affirmation requires a decisive distinction in order that one can be thought, that the sensual corporeality of the listening subject can be discerned as such through being set apart from others. It is this decisive distinction that violates any radical thinking of immanence as it requires that the self set itself apart in subtractive constitution for it to be. Immanence remains a conservative notion insofar as it is only for us or for an individual, as immanence must be immanent to something else that nonetheless sets itself apart. The consequent idea—following the conservative thinking of immanence as vital affirmation—of a kind of `immanent transcendence’ is perhaps better replaced by a kind of extimacy as immanence in the latter sense only serves as a conceptual vehicle or `trojan horse’ for thinking a kind of interior exteriority—that which is in me yet more than me or not only me but also other, the nesting of exteriorities—and itself remains poorly and conservatively thought. In place of this limited conservative conception, immanence should be thought radically or as a `pure immanence’ yet an immanence that cannot be lived insofar as life effects an aberrant bifurcation from the `cosmic truth of extinction’ or the more proximal, strangely familiar and `immanent’ exteriority or extimate alterity. Immanence, thought as a pure and absolutely unifying principle eschews both alterity, identity and life, and so there can be no ethics of immanence insofar as it makes room for neither exteriority nor decision.

2. Affective Intensity and Transcendental Empiricism

Sonic experience is often thought in the sense of a kind of Deleuzian intensity by virtue of its manifest ephemerality and transience, its `durational becoming’, yet quality remains the identifiable exterior and congealed exhaustion of intensity insofar as this exteriority or extension is what becomes identifiable and knowable of a sound, a sound which nonetheless persists in objective excess. The experience of or qualitative rendering of sound is always and necessarily for another and therefore—contrary to the conservative nature of the ideology of immanence—external to intensive becoming, covering over and even cancelling it. Affect is, in this line of thinking, closely related to intensity insofar as both are thought as a kind of energetic becoming or force, with affective intensity thought as a kind of pseudo-objective (I use this in a positive sense) rupture of the real or contact with a kind of durational—as opposed to spatial—becoming. Intensity is, however, not so easily aligned with an interiority `for us’ insofar as it accounts for a kind of excessive process of becoming over what appears. This appears contrary to the ideology of immanence according to which one is always on the inside of sonority, insofar as it effects an enveloping field of vibrations which includes the listening subject within it. Yet the `inside’ of sonority remains inaudible, as that which we call sound is necessarily manifest as qualitative extension `for us’. As Kahn describes in the above quote, sound surrounds both the objective source of the sound and the listening subject yet, I would add, without being reducible to either and therefore exterior to both, leaving an unknown and inaudible remainder that persists in between source and subject without being heard by either or by itself. This remainder presents a peculiar kind of non-phenomenal, and therefore non-Schaeferrian, sound object that persists in inaudibility: the inaudible interior of sound-itself which remains in excessive exteriority with regard to both objective source and subject (both of which are nonetheless surrounded by this sound, to a varying degrees, hearing it and thereby forming a kind of Truaxian `object orientated’ acoustic community). It is this sense of a persistent and excessive, i.e. inaudible, sonority that we need if we are to think affects beyond their conservative limitation to anthropic experience and in the properly Deleuzian sense of an autonomy of affects. It is in this sense that affects are neither thought nor known in a sense but are, rather, primarily functional and informative, the agents of qualitative, sensory appearances that remain irreducible to them.

Developing Deleuze’s more general notes on sensory distortion, taken from Difference and Repetition, to the present argument regarding sound, intensity is that which is only revealed wherein what a sound `is’ or, rather, `is of’—what it represents, even where that is the image of its objective source rather than some more abstract subjective or cultural meaning—is stripped away:

The point of sensory distortion is often to grasp intensity independently of extensity or prior to the qualities in which it is developed. A pedagogy of the senses, which forms an integral part of `transcendentalism’, is directed towards this aim. Pharmacodynamic experiences or physical experiences such as vertigo approach the same result: they reveal to us that difference in itself, that depth in itself or that intensity in itself at the original moment at which it is neither qualified nor extended. At this point, the harrowing character of intensity, however weak, restores its true meaning: not the anticipation of perception but the proper limit of sensibility from the point of view of a transcendent exercise (Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 237).

What is immediately of importance in this dense excerpt—which I quote at length as many of the points therein will be developed throughout the remainder of this post—is the sense of the qualified or extended, as it is this which defines or rather affords the referentiality and identity of a phenomenal experience, which must necessarily entail—without being reducible to—its sensory rendering, which is extensive to what it is in and for itself (which where sound is concerned, I argue, remains inaudible). The qualitative extension of intensity itself is its perception as a fixed or rather identifiable appearance, what it is for us rather than that which it is in-itself. We are well adept as listeners at binding the vast body or quantity of sonority by means of a critical audile technique, wherein sounds becomes signs, and of localising or locating sound objects within alteritous spatiality (here the term space is used in the narrow Bergsonian sense of the term). It is, however, at the extremities audition that the audile system is problematised: at the lower end, where wavelengths extend beyond that of the diameter of the head, it becomes increasingly difficult to locate sounds in space due the absence of significant inter-aural time differences: sound is heard as non-localised exteriority or, with sufficient amplitude, extimacy. At the higher frequencies where wavelengths find a resonance within the ear canal, localisation is equally difficult and sound is heard as a quite literally piercing, non-localised extimate event: appearing within yet coming from without (perhaps the most refined example of this latter case can be heard in Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis). What is important is that in both cases a sound cannot be easily located in space, pinned to an original point to which the sound itself is heard to refer. The non-localisable extremities of sound contribute to its becoming unknown in a sense and therefore permit something of its intensity to be felt, to emerge from the strictures of its qualitative, phenomenological extension.

Due to the sustained attention given to music and sonority by Deleuze, but most notably that carried out in collaboration with Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus an important question is raised: “why this privileging of the ear?”. Sound is granted a series of peculiar privileges, the most striking of which is perhaps—fascinating and seductive for the sound artist—that it acts as as the `cutting edge of deterritorializations’, thereby being recognised as an active force within processual determinations or individuation. In revisiting this question we should also address the `antithetical’ medium with which a contrast would be made in bolstering the audiovisual litany as a somewhat tepid tirade against `ocular tyranny’. There is, of course, an informative intensity to light implicated within processual individuation by way of sight, occurring by means of non-classical or “non-image forming photoreceptive pathways” which would be comparable—if not in a physiological sense—to the synthetic receptivity of hearing that Sterne contrasts to the analytical selectivity of listening (for more on this see Vandewalle et. al., ‘Spectral Quality of Light Modulates Emotional Brain Responses in Humans’ (pdf)). These affective capacities of light are exemplified in the work of James Turrell and more explicitly in Philippe Rahm’s use of UV light within the Hormonorium, directly exploiting its metabolic affectivity—yet it is perhaps due to the difficulty with which the `internal’ temporality or duration of light is perceived within given or common sense that it is not the recipient of the particular privilege Deleuze and Guattari place upon sonorous affectivity, insofar as it operates at a speed inhibiting its perception as other than a static constant. In this sense, Deleuze and Guattari might be seen to make a similar move to that carried out by McLuhan in his—metaphorical—definition of `acoustic space’, making use of a commonly perceived if oversimplified experience of sound—its enveloping, immersive, etc., qualities—in order to make a more general comment about the nature of mediums. The danger of this tactic, however, is that it brings one’s argument into proximity with a certain transhistorical idealisation of mediums and senses, as Sterne has shown in his exposition of an `audiovisual litany’. This danger aside, the privilege accorded to sound would then be thought as depending upon it’s constitutive bandwidth and the specificity of its medium or material contingencies—which Deleuze and Guattari make reference to in a non-metaphorical and specific sense—while acting conceptually as a vehicle for a more general statement regarding the `transcendental’ or excessive informative capacity of a medium. This privilege might then be thought to receive further grounding in the confusion of the sonorous and the haptic, most clearly and commonly felt at the thresholds of audibility wherein its durational determination and temporal fluctuation is most pronounced to the senses. We find a similar argument put forward by Christoph Cox in his discussion of Max Neuhaus, Bergson and drones; where the latter, through frequency, constancy and repetition—the constitutive invariance of the drone in a kind of musical, extensive or identifiable sense—presents a kind of abstract duration apart from qualitative extension. In citing the drone as approaching something resembling the Bergsonian notion of duration, Cox quotes the following from Bergson’s Duration and Simultaneity:

A melody to which we listen with our eyes closed, heeding it alone, comes close to coinciding with this time which is the very fluidity of inner life; but it still has too many qualities, too much definition, and we must efface the difference among the sounds, then do away with the distinctive features of sound itself, retaining of it only the continuation of what precedes into what follows and the uninterrupted transition, multiplicity without divisibility and succession without separation, in order to finally rediscover basic time. Such is immediately perceived duration, without which we would have no idea of time (Bergson, `Duration and Simultaneity’, in Key Writings, 205).

This procedural stripping away of the distinctive and perhaps specifically timbral qualities of sound that allow for its identification as the sound of a thing, i.e. it’s referential operation, is thought to uncover what we might think of in a technical sense as its spectral composition of frequency components, those simple waveforms whose sum is rendered qualitatively distinct in audition yet the internal composition of which persists in a kind of obscured `pure duration’ and `unspoilt’ frequency. This practice of stripping away the specific towards exposing an underlying or otherwise occluded durational intensity is a practice championed by Deleuze and Guattari, who site La Monte Young as an exemplary case employing a `prodigious simplification’ towards the deterritorialization of sound. Deterritorialization can be thought as a certain mobility or movement between territories, a mobility attained by sound, according to Deleuze and Guattari, through its refinement or simplification, a certain shedding of overtones and spectral complexity: ‘what is necessary to make sound travel, to travel around sound, is very pure and simple sound, an emission or wave without harmonics (La Monte Young has been successful at this) [...] a material that is not meager but prodigiously simplified, creatively limited, selected’ (A Thousand Plateaus, 383). Sonic intensity, then, is known, thought or felt only in the sense of a pure sound, whether this be understood in the sense of pure and simple tones—as in A Thousand Plateaus—due to their approximation of a kind of Bergsonian duration, or in the sense of a kind of white noise, understood as the ‘Idea of sound’, as in Difference and Repetition:

the Idea of colour, for example, is like white light which perplicates in itself the genetic elements and relations of all colours, but is actualized in the diverse colours with their respective spaces; or the Idea of sound, which is also like white noise (Difference and Repetition, 258)

In both senses, sonic intensity cannot be thought apart from or without the concept of `transcendental empiricism’, wherein `purity’ is not of a thing—i.e. referential—but must remain highly abstract (if not `in-itself’ due to it’s being felt and therefore `for us’) in order to limit or shed extension. This peculiar empiricism is transcendental not in an ideal sense but, rather, in a real and a-referential sense insofar as such sounds are not known to be the sounds of anything other than a-referential intensity, if not strictly themselves (resembling a kind of hyper-Schaefferianism through the shedding of timbral qualities as yet another layer of extension occluding the intensity of the in-itself). This version of empiricism is transcendental in the sense that the qualities with which it concerns itself are not of or reducible to an `objective’ other as recognisable or known thing, but rather remain in excess of the localised objective identities that such a knowing would constitute, pertaining more to a transcendental materialism, substrate or excess of the objective beyond the ideal.

This peculiar empiricism is also thought as transcendental with regard to the specificity of the faculties and senses, marking the point at which they break down. The `transcendent exercise’ of the senses would entail a kind of critical empiricism drawing upon the point at which the limits of the senses are felt and ungrounded-in-a-sense. This is, again, thought as transcendental not in an ideal but real sense, identifying an excess of the objective beyond the phenomenal. Transcendental empiricism, in this sense, draws to the fore the subtractive nature of sensation, or its operation according to a kind of subtractive synthesis , i.e., that there is more to the event (in this case a sound) than what is perceived or rendered sensible in any one extensive instance. The revelation of the subtractive nature of sensation and perception reveals the transcendent nature of that which is sensed, specifically a quantity of its transcendental excess. This excess may bring to the fore the `transcendent exercise’ of the senses where the subtractive nature of one is insufficient in rendering the the excessive object sensible and defaults to the capacities of another. Again, an example of this can be taken from the extremes of audition, and specifically the `grey area’ of infrasonics. Marking the lower passage of the audible’s slip into inaudibility, the point at which audibility begins to falter and default upon hapticity in order to bind or render sensible the objective excess of a waveform, the point at which sounds are no longer heard but felt. The transcendent exercise of the subtractive discretion of the senses by an excessive objective stimulus performs a critical function in bringing to the fore—or to thought—the subtractive nature of the senses, but also in the manner with which this excess reveals the nature of the medium which itself persists in excess of its sensory or sensual subtraction. An example of this can be taken from the lower end or `depths’ or infrasonics where `sound’ is not heard as sound but felt as a kind of wind beating against or buffeting the flesh, revealing the medium of sound itself which is `cancelled’ or obscured in its qualitative rendering in audibility. To guard against this `intensive revelation’ being thought as a privilege of sound, a comparable example can be found in the lower registers of electromagnetic vibration where light becomes felt as heat. Transcendental empiricism points thought to an objective excess of the real by focusing upon the way in which the medium of sound-itself—air—persists in excess of the subtractive discretion of the senses, bridging—without completing or conjoining towards a common sense—the gap between them and their respective inadequacies. To put it another way, transcendental empiricism reveals something, a quantity, of the intensity of the in-itself by exercising the inadequacies of the subtractive limitations placed upon what appears to be or is sensibly rendered `for us’.

It is worth pointing out at this stage in order to make it clear that intensity is not herein idealised as some kind of pure state of perception to be lived and attained through a kind of `deep listening‘, but rather that intensity is never absolutely revealed, but appears with bits, fragments of what-it-is-the-sound-of stuck to it like pieces hard and brittle shell stuck to the otherwise smooth and flowing interior of a snail that has recently been stood on. Intensity—insofar as it appears—appears encrusted with qualities (timbre), although never absolutely or totally covered.

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Addendum: A recent and related post on Larval Subjects Deleuzes Transcendental Aesthetics and Empiricism

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